Congrats on acquiring the rights to produce a biopic of the late, great John Belushi. I read about it in the trades this morning. I know, you know, we all know you like showcasing great comedians in your movies. Are you already familiar with Sean Patton? If not, brush up on Sean Patton. Thanks!
Hope the rest of your summer is going well. I enjoyed seeing you on the set of Due Date last November, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the finished movie this November.
Hey, readers! Look what I found. My old digital audio recorder turned up, and when I replaced the batteries, I discovered audio clips of all sorts of funny people talking in my proximity from years gone by (still have audio from George Carlin, Ricky Gervais, Dane Cook, and some young ladies that I must have chatted up in a blaze of glory at an Aspen afterparty!). Which, speaking of yesterday was supposedly National Hangover Day, and I don't know if you "celebrated" it appropriately or not, but it reminded me that I had met The Hangover's director, Todd Phillips, on a hotel rooftop for a one-on-one chat in Montreal last summer during the 2009 Just For Laughs fest. I had talked to him a few years ago when I was a newspaper reporter in Boston and he was helming School for Scoundrels. He casted several up-and-coming comedians in that film, and also put a bunch of stand-up and improv guys in The Hangover, too. Let's talk about it. Oh, we did!
You're able to get a lot of true comedians in your movies. I'd like to get more credit for that (laughs). No. I'm teasing. I think if you look at all of my movies. This is my fifth movie. And you really break down how many actual stand-up comics that I've employed, because I support so much stand-up comedy, because I love comics and what they do, and I love their struggles so much, that to me it's important that, ok, I have this five-line part, and I could you know, audition all these actors and people that get shots at soap operas and, you know, beer commercials and all this, or I can go to Todd Barry, who's like a fucking great stand-up comic who I've loved forever and give him a shot. And I've always done that, because A) I love having funny people around, but B) I also just like to support that community. I think it's so important.
Do you feel like other directors or studios have a stigma against stand-ups?
No. No. I don't think they have a stigma. I just don't think they're aware of it as much. You know what I mean? Judd Apatow certainly is. But I don't think a lot of the other comedy directors come from where we come from -- me and Judd -- as far as fans of stand-up comedy and knowing all these acts, and knowing how talented all these guys are. I go to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre every week, you know. I just look at these new guys all the time. And yeah, I'm looking because I want to laugh, but I'm also looking to say, this guy can do a two-day part in the next movie, so then, when you reach a certain level, and you're able to really give a shot to Zach Galifianakis in a starring capacity, it's the greatest feeling in the world, you know? There's 10 guys in Hollywood that we all know could have played that part. Not necessarily as uniquely as Zach. But could have done that part. That were on those lists that people put together. And it's like, no, man. Let's go to Zach. He's the funniest motherfucker out there, just nobody knows.
Did you have any fights with the studio over casting, in that respect?
No. With The Hangover in particular, it was, if I could keep the budget at a certain amount, I've done enough movies, and they've been successful enough, where, they said, hey, you can cast whomever you want if you keep it at a certain number. So I was very adamant about, on the crew, and on our side, about keeping that number down, and being able to use Ed Helms, and Zach and Bradley Cooper.
So that helps the comedy community in a way, too, I suppose? The studios want to keep the budgets down and comedians are more likely to be cheaper.
They are, because they're not known entities. You look at a guy like Matt Walsh. He's in every one of my movies. He's in all five of my movies. Bryan Callen is in most of my movies. I go back to these stand-ups because I know A) they love the work, and B) they're going to deliver every time. They're going to take whatever we have on the page -- they're just additive. You know, a lot of times, an actor's an actor. An actor reads lines. They make it their own and they're wonderful, but a comedian can be so additive in so many other ways, that a lot of people don't think of.
So many wild and wonderful things happened at the 92YTribeca show where I quoted Zach Galifianakis recently. After that show, actor Bradley Cooper showed up backstage to hang with Galifianakis and I thought, hmmm, that's interesting. Then I learned that Cooper and Galifianakis are starring together (along with Ed Helms) in an upcoming summer movie, The Hangover. My friends at Videogum watched the trailer today and said, "It's like Very Bad Things meets Three Men And A Baby meets Dude, Where's My Car meets funny." Agreed.
If you live near Burbank, Calif., you also have a chance to watch the whole movie at a free screening on March 12. The comedy fans at A Special Thing have the details. Todd Phillips directed the movie, which officially debuts June 5.
Filmmaker Todd Phillips talked with me the other day (actually, last Friday) about comedy and his latest film, School For Scoundrels, which opens today.
What made you laugh as a kid?
"For me it was all about Eddie Murphy's Raw. and it was all about Stripes and Blues Brothers. Those are the kinds of things I grew up on. You'd like to pretend you grew up on Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder but that stuff came later in life. The truth is it was Animal House and Meatballs and Stripes and Eddie Murphy. That is definitely what my younger influences were."
But you didn't start making comedies until you hooked up with Ivan Reitman (on Road Trip), right?
"I was also only 26 years old…I started doing documentaries, but if you had seen the documentaries that I had done…they all have a real comedic slant to them. They're not done like, I never approached documentary like journalism, it was always as a director and a filmmaker. So it wasn't a big leap to go from a documentary into narrative features, because well, if you do a documentary correctly, and if you actually direct a documentary, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has little things about each character that get let out slowly in the story just like in a narrative feature. So it's all storytelling. It's all filmmaking."
I also noticed you have a story credit on Borat. What part do you take credit for? "I know those guys, Sacha, and we just helped them brainstorm that movie. I mean, Sacha, he's a genius. He does his whole thing entirely. For him it's so much about just coming up with the big idea and then he goes in and does it."
Why remake School For Scoundrels?
"For us it was really an opportunity to work with Billy Bob," he said. "It was really about finding something cool that would be in his wheelhouse that we could do. So that's really where it started."
Did you make a conscious effort to cast comedians with street cred like Sarah Silverman and David Cross?
"There's about seven improv guys in this movie who are probably the top seven improv guys in New York right now…For me and David Cross and Sarah fit into this reasoning, I like having as many funny people on the set as possible. I like having, it's really a spirit thing more than anything. It helps the vibe of the set. It's very much like, I read somewhere early on, it's important to set the tone of the movie on the set of the movie and its very much that. It's keeping the atmosphere and the vibe really loose and funny and it always ends up finding its way into the film."
"I realize sometimes I sound like a major stoner, because all I ever do is talk about vibes. But it's true….I don't really do casting. I don't have people come in and read lines and videotape them and watch it. I just meet people and I feel it. It's the weirdest thing. I feel like I sound like a psycho. But comedy to me is about essence and tone and all these things that you can just really feel and you don't really act. So when Jon Glaser walks into the room, even though I haven't really seen him do anything and we start talking about the part. You feel it. If I tell you to stand up and read these lines right now and put a video camera on you and sat two other people next to you — that's not how you're normally going to be anyway. And it's not the atmosphere I'm going to set up for you on the set of the movie. So it's so much more about the underneath stuff."
Do you think it'd be fair to characterize your films as "big dumb comedies"?
"The dumb part I don't love, but I'll take it. Two out of three ain't bad…But I don't know that broad means dumb. I think dumb overall would describe, I'm trying to think of a comedy that's dumb…Really I think these movies work because there's an emotional thread through them that people connect with, and I find that hard to say that that's dumb. So even the tennis scene is ridiculous and broad. It's not necessarily dumb, because there's something going on there, it's happening for a reason, that I think actually drags you into the movie more. So dumb? I think I would take umbrage with the word. I don't see comedies as the ugly stepsister in narrative filmmaking. I don't see it as a genre that you grow out of. I'd be happy doing comedies forever. I love doing comedies. And I love working with funny people."
Later, we came back to the nature of comedians and comedy.
"Comedy is so much about fearlessness. It's about setting up the environment on a movie set where people, actors feel safe to (expletive) up. It's so much about, Will's biggest strength is his fearlessness. And Jim Carrey's biggest strength is his fearlessness. And Sacha's biggest strength is his fearlessness. These guys have no fear. And that translates in such a huge way, because you just can't be self-conscious in any way, and you just can't worry about if it's going to work or not, because it's all about going for it. And you know what? 9 out of the 10 times it doesn't work, but we're only going to see it in the movie the times it worked. It's so hard. And live theater is the hardest because if it doesn't work, people see your mistakes…Movies, you watch the Borat stuff, you didn't see the 18 times it didn't work, you see the (expletive) golden time. But that's why he's so brilliant. Because he's relentless. You know what I mean. That's why Will's so great, because he'll try it eight different ways until the one way that works golden. The best guys just blow you away with that."